Monday, January 10, 2011

On the shore

"What is it?"

"It's not something you can get across in words. The real response is something words can't express."

"There you go," Sada replies. "Exactly. If you can't get it across in words then it's better not to try."

"Even to yourself?" I ask.

"Yeah, even to yourself," Sada says. "Better not to try to explain it, even to yourself."

I won't try (too hard) to explain it (much). I read Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore over the holiday season, finally and having made some false starts on it over the last few months. I find reading Murakami demands a certain state of mind — sometimes the willed reading of him might bring this state into being, but sometimes it doesn't come so easy. That said, once I was in it, I loved it.

Murakami's not exactly a prose stylist, at least not in translation, but he does have the occasional way with words ("Her smile steps offstage for a moment, then does an encore"). He's more an idea guy. Thing is, I'm not really sure what the idea is.

Now, The Wind-up Bird Chronicles was pretty mind-blowing. Dream-like and trippy. But now that I "know" Murakami, his style of slipstream is a literary normal that I'm perfectly accustomed to. I mean, this being the fourth Murakami I've read, the edge is gone; it's no longer weird.

It's a lovely feeling, to be swept up in this surreality, the strange interconnections. I kind of wish I'd discovered Murakami decades ago — as a university student I'd have peed my pants with excitement to get my hands on his latest. But now, as much as I enjoy getting lost in Murakami's world (and make no mistake: I will read plenty more, and I'm plenty excited about 1Q84), I feel like I've been tricked — it just doesn't strike me as all that deep.

I'm not entirely sure what makes me say that, and I'm not all that sure what "deep" is. But take for example this idea: "People are drawn deeper into tragedy not by their defects but by their virtues." It's just thrown out there in a casual conversation. Sure, the character doesn't say this in a vacuum; there's context, there are references to Aristotle, to Oedipus. But the idea itself is the sort of thing you could write volumes about; yet there it is, for the reader to latch onto, or not, for a paragraph or two, and that's pretty much the end of the idea. It doesn't exactly weave itself throughout the novel as a grand theme (unless you work really hard at analyzing the novel that way).

I suppose this makes it deeper than the books that don't even bother throwing that kind of idea to the reader, but it makes me feel teased and short-changed. Maybe, even, there are too many ideas, and they're all over the place, touched on lightly, and this upsets some literary order I keep in my head. Not that I'm averse to doing any thinking for myself, but Murakami lulls me into believing that I'm thinking when I'm not. I finish Murakami novels with a "What just happened?" feeling, not with regard to the plot, but with a question mark hovering over the (pleasurable) immersive experience of reading a Murakami novel: Why did I love it so much? Neat trick. I don't know how he pulls it off.

Do you love Murakami? Do you think he's "deep"? Or just beautiful?

Apart from the talking cats, and that a guy carried on conversations with the cats, my favourite part of Kafka on the Shore is the digressions on music. The book should come with a built-in soundtrack. Schubert. Beethoven's Archduke Trio. Haydn. (I had to make due with other Beethoven trios.)

They say writing about music is like dancing about architecture, which is hard to do well. I love that Murakami has characters talking about music, with interesting things to say about it, and naturally.

"That's why I like to listen to Schubert while I'm driving. Like I said, it's because all the performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I'm driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of — that certain types of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging. Do you know what I'm getting at?"
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